Scientists find evidence of ‘original Brexit’

Standing guard: The White Cliffs of Dover symbolise the UK’s isolation from continental Europe.

Around 450,000 years ago, cascades of icy waterfalls caused Britain to break away from Europe. Scientists have dubbed it the “original Brexit”. Has Britain benefited from its island status?

Last week the United Kingdom started the formal process of leaving the European Union. But a rather more significant split occurred 450,000 years ago, when the land connecting Great Britain with the European mainland started to disappear. And now scientists know how it happened.

For 10 million years Britain was merely a peninsula, connected to Europe by a 20-mile wide land bridge. It was made of chalk, as can be seen where it fissured at the White Cliffs of Dover.

In the last ice age, a huge glacier covered most of southern England. With the North Sea dammed, the rivers that drained into it started to form a large lake. As the lake’s level rose, its water started to seep over the Dover-Calais land-bridge. Huge waterfalls eroded the bedrock underneath it.

Finally, the ridge gave way. A flood of biblical proportions ensued as the lake emptied into what is now the English Channel. The scientists believe a second flood, which happened around 160,000 years ago, finally swept away the rest of the bridge. This would ensure that, if sea levels remained high (as they are now, during a comparatively warm period), Great Britain would be an island.

And so Great Britain became an outsider in Europe. A 2016 poll by Eurobaromater of every EU country found that British people were the least likely to say that being European was a key part of their identity. Only 33% said it was, compared with 70% of Germans and 61% of French people.

The surrounding seas have led to an “island mentality” among the British — a feeling of superiority, a desire to be self-sufficient and perhaps a certain hostility towards foreign lands and ideas.

Two weeks ago the England football manager Gareth Southgate blamed this mentality on the team’s consistent underachievement. And as Britain drifts away from Europe politically, it is time to ask whether being an island has helped or hindered the UK.

This sceptred isle

It has helped, say many proud Britons. The main reason Britain has not been successfully invaded since 1066 is because it is an island. This security has allowed it to develop a unique, rich culture. And far from making Britain turn in from the world, being separated from Europe allowed it to forge strong ties with other continents. If only every country were an island.

It has been a huge drawback, say others. Britain’s island mentality leads to xenophobia and a pig-headed refusal to see the virtues in other cultures. It is partly why British people are so bad at learning foreign languages. Thanks to just 21 miles of water, many British people deny their status as European citizens. In doing so, they turn away from the world and embrace ignorance.

You Decide

  1. Has being an island nation helped or hindered the UK?
  2. To what extent do you view Britain as being part of Europe?


  1. Rank five things which make the United Kingdom unique among European countries.
  2. Research another island — it could be huge or tiny — and write 500 words on whether it has benefitted from being an island.

Some People Say...

“Britain’s geographical break with Europe was the most important moment in its history.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On the seabed between Dover and Calais, there are seven huge holes several kilometres wide and up to 100 metres deep. For a while, no one knew what they were — but the researchers now say they are evidence of vast waterfalls. We also know that island cultures often develop in different ways from land-locked countries.
What do we not know?
What Britain would have been like if it were a peninsula, like Iberia (Spain and Portugal). Scientists also want to find out the exact timings of the “geological Brexit”, which would mean drilling into the bottom of the Channel and analysing the age of the sediment.
What is believed?
That being an island has made Britain a safer place. But some believe that this has come at the price of British people doing without cultural curiosity.

Word Watch

Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty last Wednesday, March 29th 2017, putting the UK on course to leave by April 2019.
A major port for ferries between France and England right at the northern tip of France. It was part of the the English kingdom between 1357 and 1558.
Warm period
The world went through a warm period between around 950 and 1250, before a cooler period around the North Atlantic known as the Little Ice Age, which ended in the 19th century. Since then, global temperatures have been getting warmer.
The most Europhile of all European nations is Luxembourg, where 83% of the population see themselves as “Luxembourgish and European”, “European and Luxembourgish” or simply European.
The Normans invaded Britain 951 years ago, with William the Conqueror defeating the Anglo-Saxon forces at the Battle of Hastings.
Foreign languages
According to the British Council in 2012, 62% of British people can speak only English — the highest proportion of monolinguists in Europe (based on a European Commission survey).

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